There was a time when “vagina” was more of a whisper at universities than a word, when communities and administrators were not engaged in high-profile debates on how to better address sexual violence. The Vagina Monologues helped, in part, to change that with annual stagings in campus theater houses around the country. The play has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that some feminists are ready to move on, or at least raise critiques of it and call for greater inclusion in its messaging.
Even so, the Vagina Monologues’ vignette-driven format has been an inspiration for activists seeking to use a similar mechanism to draw attention to other issues. Most recently, the reproductive rights group Advocates for Youth dramatized 14 real stories submitted to its 1 in 3 Campaign for Out of Silence, a new play designed for use on college campuses that aims to destigmatize abortion, honor the diverse range of experiences that come with ending a pregnancy, and encourage others to share their abortion stories.
A world in which society prioritizes comprehensive reproductive health care and does not shame abortion is a bold vision indeed. The usual trifecta of grassroots movement building, public policy initiatives, and electoral strategy cannot, alone, achieve it. Something squishier needs to happen, too—culture change. And perhaps the same thing can take place with abortion rights as has happened with the Vagina Monologues: that, at the least, Out of Silence can act as a jumping-off point for activism that may push even further than abortion storytelling itself in the future.
In late January in Washington, D.C., an audience of abortion-rights advocates were present for a preview of Out of Silence, poised to gobble up both the concept and the stories themselves.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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The first story began as a woman named Ruah and her friend sipped beer, listened to Bikini Kill, fretted over a missed period and the idea of taking a pregnancy test, and wondered whether abortion is wrong. The immediate message was that abortion was going to be discussed beyond talking points and abstract debates about constitutional rights and religious beliefs, with more nuance and in the context of the lived experiences of multidimensional—and sometimes contradictory—people.
The characters had a variety of reasons for seeking abortions, and feelings about having them: A young woman, age 15, had an abortion and no problem with it. A devastated lesbian couple sought abortion after receiving unexpected prenatal testing results. A new opposite-sex couple that could barely stop making out chose abortion because they simply didn’t know each other well enough. A mother and a daughter fought about rape, abortion, and the support one could—or should—expect from other people.
Each story was chosen from the nearly 700 abortion stories collected by the 1 in 3 Campaign because it spoke to one of ten playwrights who read through them and created the vignettes. Still, it is an artistic production, and so while some of the fictionalized narratives may include words and details from the original stories, others may be largely drawn from the imagination of the artists.
This does not mean the play was apolitical. In the current environment, sharing abortion stories is in itself political, a fact evidenced by the handful of protesters with graphic signs gathered outside the theater on the evening of the premiere (one said “here come the killing women” as I walked inside behind a small group of people). The production itself also included chiffon-like banners in the background, on which footage of both abortion-rights and anti-abortion-rights protests were silently screened in between stories.
It is in these spaces where art may offer the most hope, with its ability to articulate realities that don’t fit neatly on unified protest signs, and through its representation and re-creation of the inner lives and complex experiences of women. Character, in the sense that it includes the idiosyncrasies that make a person who they uniquely are, is pretty much the antithesis of a story that has been focus-grouped or edited to be indistinguishable from talking points for a political point of view. The multi-page blocks of didactic “dialogue” in Ayn Rand’s novels showcase precisely what goes wrong, artistically, when characters are viewed as vessels for political messages rather than representations of people who do human things like take out a bad night’s sleep on their coworkers, or get crushes on people who snort when they laugh. In a panel discussion after the production, one of the playwrights, Anu Yadav, expanded on her view of theater’s role in advocacy, including that theater can help “smash stereotypes with good character development.”
That’s a heavy lift with vignettes surrounding an action the audience already knows: that the main character of each story will have an abortion. It was, however, indeed clear the playwrights were striving to flesh out who the characters were not just in the context of their pregnancies, but in their lives as people. They largely succeeded, although there were occasionally times when it appeared that the desire to convey a specific political message was overpowering a natural flow of dialogue.
Overall, from an artistic and activist perspective, there are advantages and disadvantages to this Vagina Monologues-style model of theater, in which individual characters speak to her—or perhaps his—truth. Recently, in fact, the Vagina Monologues found itself the focus of scrutiny that many of the pioneering student actors and women’s studies professors who championed its first productions could not have imagined.
Earlier this month, a student-run theater board at the women’s college canceled its production of the Vagina Monologues, explaining its view that the play does not effectively include transgender women. “At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” said Erin Murphy, a representative of the board, in a campus-wide email obtained by the conservative blog Campus Reform. “Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”
The student group’s decision on the play came on the heels of the college’s announcement at fall convocation that Mount Holyoke was adjusting its admission policy to explicitly include transgender students. “Mount Holyoke remains committed to its historic mission as a women’s college,” according to its website. “Yet concepts of what it means to be a woman are not static. Traditional binaries around who counts as a man or woman are being challenged by those whose gender identity does not conform to their biology.”
It is not surprising to see a 20-year-old feminist play dropped by students because it rallies for women’s empowerment under the banner of vaginas, in both the specific context of Mount Holyoke this academic year, as well as the broader context of youth activists often leading the demand that traditional feminist spaces grow to include a conception of gender that does not depend on genitalia. This critique is not explicitly new; in 2005, Ensler wrote an additional, optional monologue featuring a transgender woman.
Quickly after the news of the removal of the play hit the blogosphere, playwright Eve Ensler responded with a piece in TIME. “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman,” she wrote. “It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina. In the play, I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.” Ensler also referenced transgender women performing the play, and the inclusion of a new monologue that features the story of a transgender woman.
While many may have nodded their heads in response to Ensler’s viewpoint, her response overlooked that art is in the eye of the beholder. This is one reason why art plays such a powerful role in liberation. Storytelling art is not just about building empathy with others; it is about viewers having the freedom to interact with, interpret, and project their needs into artistically created lives. Art is created to provoke reactions, and some of those reactions might include calls for better artistic representations of people who do not see their realities reflected.
To that end, what is revolutionary for some is reactionary to others. It is perfectly legitimate to not interpret art according to the maker’s intentions, and Ensler missed that point by sharing what she envisioned and using “I” statements in her response to Mount Holyoke. For whatever flaws it is perceived to have, one of the greatest beauties of the Vagina Monologues is that it became something much bigger than Eve Ensler sitting at a keyboard with the aim of empowering women with vaginas.
It is perfectly acceptable, and beautiful even, if after the passage of two decades that something bigger is not big enough for younger feminists who want more inclusion. It means that some are ready to move past destigmatizing vaginas and onto transgender inclusion—or the inclusion of a more diverse range of stories, period. In this way, Ensler may have succeeded in driving a feminist conversation beyond her wildest dreams.
As far as Out of Silence is concerned, then, the production of an abortion play would likely be greeted differently depending on the community. On some campuses it might be revolutionary just to stage an abortion play, period. On others, the play might help destigmatize abortion and encourage the sharing of stories. On still others, it might serve as inspiration for campus activists to continue their work to increase access to abortion, defang sexuality as a weapon for discriminators, and realize gender equality or racial equality or reproductive justice.
If it really succeeds, however, Out of Silence will spur difficult discussions about the nature of inclusion—and that is a positive thing. In fact, such discussions are already taking place. During a panel following the premiere, for example, a member of the audience identified as having a disability. With regard to the prenatal testing vignette, this person urged the playwrights to expand their thinking about what quality of life can mean for people with disabilities. The comment was not met with Eve Ensler-style defensiveness; it was acknowledged and not rebutted. In this way, the comment itself was allowed to hang in the room for further reflection by the audience and the playwrights.
That moment gave me the most hope for Out of Silence and the groundbreaking activism it aims to spur. Messy, raw, and honest conversations from multiple perspectives are among the best things liberatory art can inspire. It is not possible to tell the abortion story, or represent women as a whole, and those who try will fail and do harm to the community, especially to those left behind. But when more people are inspired to raise their unique voices fearlessly, and to pursue further justice? That’s magic.